In a move that could be the political death knell for environmentalists' efforts to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has approved a plan to block the draining of the famed reservoir unless the 26 cities and water districts in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties that receive Hetch Hetchy water give their approval.
"It's a fairness question," said Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of the commission. "They are paying two-thirds of the bills. They are two-thirds of our customers. We need to make sure that whatever we do is fair and equitable to all of our customers."
The 5-0 vote, which came after 13 minutes of discussion at a low-profile commission meeting on Tuesday, means that unless the move is overturned by a lawsuit, environmental groups can no longer hope to drain the reservoir simply by winning approval from the voters of San Francisco.
The reservoir in Yosemite and the Tuolumne River that flows into it are the main water source for 2.5 million Bay Area residents. Although San Francisco owns and operates the system of pipes, dams and tunnels, only one-third of the users of the water live in San Francisco. The other 1.7 million live on the Peninsula, in parts of San Jose and Alameda County.
Environmental groups who favor draining the reservoir reacted strongly.
"They've given veto power to non-San Franciscans. That's wrong," said Mike Marshall, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. "It's like giving Apple computer customers a say in how the products are built. The folks on the Peninsula are customers, and the folks in San Francisco are the owners. They sell water to the customers."
Marshall said his group may sue at some point to try to overturn the new rules. He said he supports a vote of the 1.7 million people who receive Hetch Hetchy water outside of San Francisco, or a statewide vote, on the future of the water system, but not giving veto power over San Francisco voters' decisions to the 26 city councils and water districts whose citizens receive Hetch Hetchy water.
Hetch Hetchy Valley is a spectacular landscape that rivaled Yosemite Valley before Congress approved construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam in 1913, submerging the valley under 300 feet of water. It was the final battle of Sierra Club founder John Muir's life, and has haunted the environmental movement ever since.
In November, Restore Hetch Hetchy placed Proposition F on the San Francisco ballot, which would have required the city to conduct an $8 million study of draining the reservoir and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. Proposition F was endorsed by three former Yosemite superintendents. But it was opposed by San Francisco leaders, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Ed Lee, along with Silicon Valley business leaders.
It failed in a landslide, 77-23 percent.
But Restore Hetch Hetchy leaders have said they will bring back the measure as soon as 2014 for another vote. They say that if they clarify the fact that the water stored in the reservoir won't be lost but can be stored in other reservoirs instead, they might have a chance at winning voter approval for a study, then ultimately asking San Francisco voters in another election to approve draining the reservoir.
The chance that the issue could come up on another San Francisco ballot motivated Tuesday's vote.
"We don't know what might happen, and that's a concern. You are talking about businesses and jobs," said Art Jensen, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.
The association represents the 26 wholesale Hetch Hetchy customers who live outside San Francisco. Of those, 24 are elected bodies, including the cities of Palo Alto, Hayward and Milpitas, along with various water districts. Two private entities, Stanford University and California Water Service Co., also receive Hetch Hetchy water.
Under Tuesday's vote, two-thirds of the 26 wholesalers, or 18, along with agencies representing 75 percent of the water use, must approve the amendment to their 25-year water contract that the San Francisco PUC approved Tuesday. If that happens, as expected, over the next two months, the rule would take effect.
"It seems to me the PUC is trying to add another layer of difficulty," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State. "They are throwing out another hurdle to prevent those who would alter the Hetch Hetchy system from having the opportunity to do so. I wouldn't say it's checkmate, but the window of opportunity sure becomes a lot narrower."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.